On Commitment, part II: the Creative Journey

On the road
Creative Commons License photo credit: joejiang.sg

I seem to be developing a habit of ‘reaction posts’, but I can’t help it – when I read something provocative, it tends to plant a seed that slowly grows in my mind until it is well beyond the scope of a comment. In this case, I’m responding to Jonathan Fields’ post “The Creative Addiction: Is the Muse Friend or Foe?”.

Fields post consists of a quote from writer Pearl S. Buck and a couple of discussion questions. I’ll begin my discussion with the same quote:

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off…

They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.

Now, this is melodramatic stuff, and plays into a common stereotype of the creative person that is not, I believe, universally or necessarily true.

First of all, I take exception to the inverse implication that if I am not such a sensitive flower – if (say) I can handle a bad day or (heaven forbid!) an actual failure without wilting in a corner or crawling under a rock to lick my wounds, then I must not in fact be a ‘truly creative mind’. I beg to differ.

And then we have the issue of addiction, or at least “strange, unknown, inward urgency”, which probably amounts to the same thing. Is creativity an addiction? This is Fields’ central question, and there are some cogent replies among the comments. Personally I don’t really buy it, or at least I prefer to think about it differently… 

Creativity is normal

I like to create stuff, so much so that I’ve put the words “I live to create” in my sidebar. Creativity is more interesting to me than passively absorbing information, and I plan to keep doing it as long as I can. Am I addicted to it? Hmm. I’m not sure the question makes sense. To me creativity is just a normal mode of thought. Am I addicted to thinking?

It is fairly well-established at this point in the cognitive sciences that our brains are hard-wired for creative thought: each new piece of sensory information passes into a dynamic and self-regulating network of synaptic relationships and we are constantly finding novel patterns between them. We can’t help this, it’s the way our brains have evolved to cope with our complex and constantly changing environment. The processes which underly what we call creativity are fundamental to consciousness, or in any case to life with a human brain. Does it make sense to say that we’re addicted to them?

However, it must be said that some people do seem more innately wired for this than others, or are ‘better’ at tuning into the flow. Perhaps they (OK, we) have developed specific habits of thought that seem to churn up new ideas more readily than others do. These habits or techniques can be learned and practiced and improved upon, and dozens of books have been written about how to do this (I’ll be reviewing some of them here…)

Some of us seem to experience a ‘need’ to express these thoughts, though I suspect that the addiction in many cases is actually to the attention we get when others find our work compelling. However, we are conditioned to enjoy feeling creative regardless; Dan Pink’s ‘Drive’ is a fascinating study of how we are innately motivated by this feeling, by meeting and overcoming challenges that require this creative mode of thought – sometimes even more profoundly than by monetary or other measurable gain.

It’s the journey that counts, not the destination

So if it’s not just the attention we’re after, even if a little recognition sometimes is nice, what exactly is this “ strange, unknown, inward urgency”?

Once again I am going to defer my answer somewhat, as several of the key chapters of my upcoming ‘Cliffjump Manifesto’ will deal with this in more depth than I have space for here. One of them, however, I want to touch on here: the notion of the Creative Journey.

I’ve written previously about the contrast between the ‘Fixed Mindset’ and ‘Growth Mindset’ (using Carol Dweck’s terms) with regards to creativity, and I think one of the key differences is in the underlying motivation: the Fixed Mindset wants to prove itself, the Growth Mindset wants to improve itself. And improvement is not a goal, it’s a journey. What this means to me is that creativity is a lifelong commitment. It’s not about the art or music we make, or the ideas we come up with, it’s about the experience, and where it leads us next, and then after that. As long as we can keep it up.

The urgency may be strange, but is not unknown, except inasmuch as I don’t know where it will lead me. But I know what it is: it’s the desire to find out what’s around the next corner. It’s the sense that if I keep doing this over a lifetime, it’s going to lead me to some pretty amazing places – well, in fact it already has, and I can’t wait to find out what the next one might be. You’re welcome to join me!


While writing this I got to thinking about artists who are limited by circumstance, disease, or by accidents, but find a way to continue creating – driven, apparently, by an urge to create profound enough to transcend their situation. The classic example from music is Beethoven, who composed his last and arguably greatest symphony after losing his hearing almost entirely. There’s the late Teddy Pendergass, paralyzed from the waist down in an accident, who sustained a recording career for over 20 years.

Or how about Jason Becker, a ‘rock star’ guitarist who after reaching a career high with David Lee Roth began to succumb to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive paralysis eventually affecting everything but the eyes.

Except that he didn’t ‘succumb’: he found a way, with a succession of technological props, to communicate his ideas and compose and arrange the music for several solo albums. In an interview with ABC7’s Dan Ashley, which you can read here, he talks (through an interpreter) without a trace of self-pity about his continuing creative work.

Dan Ashley: “What does it mean to you to still be able to create music?”

Interpreter: “It is huge … being able to remain creative is part of what keeps me alive.”

Another ALS-afflicted artist, Tony Quan, specializes in graffiti and word art, and uses custom eye-tracking hardware to continue his work despite full paralysis. The developers of the system, which costs a fraction of what existing solutions go for, are dedicated to making it available and affordable, rather than maximizing their profit.
Of course there are numerous other examples, including some who use their ‘limitations’ as inspiration or source material for new creative work.

So, my question is: are these artists ‘addicted’ to creativity? Is the force which drives them, despite limitations in some cases so extreme that most of Pearl S. Buck’s ‘cruelly delicate organisms’ (myself included) cannot imagine the strength it must take to face them, reasonably characterized as an addiction?

Jason Becker again:

“When I took years off from making music, I didn’t think I missed it, but working with Dan and other musicians has been like a drug, only a good one.”

Hmm. Like a drug, only a good one. I’ll have to think about it, but maybe I can get behind that.
I’ve used extreme examples here to make a point, and I don’t actually think there is anything about creating in the face of terrible obstacles that is necessarily better or more worthy than doing so with intact faculties, though it’s certainly laudable.

However, I do think there’s room for a more positive outlook on the force that drives us to create, and I believe we can cultivate a relationship with it that is healthy and affirming, not threatening or confining, as seems to have been Ms. Buck’s experience. In fact, that is the very purpose of this blog.